How to Do It

I Can’t Tell if It’s a Bad Idea to Have Sex in My COVID-19 Hospital Unit

A doctor looks at another doctor longingly, with COVID-19 particles around them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a medical student who has a little bit of a crush on one of my interns at the hospital where I’m working. I didn’t think he was into me until a few days ago when he saw me changing into my scrubs and proceeded to flirt with me that afternoon.

I’m horny as hell, as we probably all are in this era of sheltering in place. This hookup, if it were to happen, would be mostly ethical regarding the virus if it happened at work in an on-call room. (We’re both working in the same COVID-19 unit with improper PPE, have both had symptoms and recovered without testing, and both live alone.)

He hasn’t mentioned a partner, whereas everyone who has one has mentioned it (again, newly formed COVID-19 unit with a whole lot of people from other units coming to help, so we’re all still getting to know each other). I think with the way workplaces have changed, for the better in my opinion, in light of the #MeToo movement, he wouldn’t hit on me overtly. But I’m really not used to making the first move with men, unless I’m at a bar on my third drink.

How do I show him I’m attracted and open to whatever he wants to do? Do I slip him a note with my number? Just wait and hope we work on the same days a few more times and this progresses naturally? (Did I mention I’m very horny and sex deprived already?)

—Play Doctor

Dear Play Doctor,

I’m not entirely convinced that this is as ethical as you make it out to be, but then I never watched Grey’s Anatomy so I’m not entirely conversant in the flow of power here or what qualifies as acceptable on-call-room behavior. I also wish I had slightly more background here: “One of [your] interns” implies this guy could be your superior, if you’re still a medical student. Regardless, pandemic or not, I think the principle of not shitting where you eat is an important one to keep in mind, especially for someone who is less than secure about making the first move, and especially if there’s a potential power dynamic that could go sour. With all due respect, you don’t seem particularly seasoned. And remember, you have to see this person regularly. Could get awkward, or worse.

But I know: These are desperate times. Without endorsing this, I’ll say I find the easiest way to transition a pleasant association into a sexual one is by talking about sex. You know, casually mentioning it in conversation. You could do this while discussing how the pandemic has been affecting you: You miss your family, you now have to work out in your living room, and oh, you’re also so horny. Tee hee. When a conversation between attracted parties starts out platonic and then turns to sex, it tends to stay there. And then sex happens. Just something I’ve noticed. I don’t think you have to tread lightly if this guy’s already been flirting with you. You could probably say, “Wanna bang?,” and that would be that. I’m sure you’re dealing with a lot right now, so I’ll leave it there.

Dear How to Do It,

Is anxiety making us come faster? I’ve been dating a wonderful woman for eight months. We’ve had a really enjoyable sex life. With the pandemic, we’ve basically been together nonstop since early March. What’s changed in the bedroom? The sex is even hotter, but strangely, we are climaxing within five to 10 minutes. Normally we spend about 45 minutes making love. We both are dealing with added anxiety due to COVID-19. Is that why we’re coming so fast? We’ve laughed together about how fast we’re coming, but it seems kinda weird to me. Is it my fragile male ego? Should we just keep having fast orgasms? Thanks for your input!

—Quick Shot

Dear Quick Shot,

Why stop having fast orgasms? Nobody’s looming over your bed with a stopwatch in hand. I love it when I can come fast with a guy; I’ve got sandwiches to eat and movies to watch. Don’t get me wrong, a long session is great, but there’s something about the efficiency of a five-minute bang that results in mutually satisfied parties that makes me marvel at the capabilities of the human body. If both of you are laughing about this and having fun, there’s no problem to fix.

As to whether anxiety is contributing to your speed-coming, the answer isn’t a definitive no. Anxiety, especially of the sexual variety, is often cited for its nullifying effects on arousal and orgasm, but in some cases, anxiety has been thought to induce orgasm. In the ’50s, a doctor by the name of S.S. Feldman wrote about spontaneous and masturbatory orgasms caused by a variety of seemingly boner-killing sources like fear of failure in public performance, fear of missing trains, threats of being arrested, or fantasies of being brought to trial or sentenced to death. Nothing about pandemics in there, but hey, it’s a horny time. I haven’t found anything about the orgasm-inducing effects of general anxiety or specific anxiety that is not the result of an immediately present stimulus, but the bigger picture here is that different people have different responses to anxiety. If the coronavirus is making sex more efficient for you two, consider yourselves lucky—it means at least one positive thing has come out of this society-upending disaster.

Dear How to Do It,

Before the pandemic, I had a one night stand and had an unprotected sexual encounter with a woman while under the influence of alcohol. I am a little bit of the anxious and paranoid type, so I immediately went to the doctor to get myself tested for STIs. Thankfully everything came back negative, but I was still worried about HIV, and based on my research, HIV takes about a month to be fully conclusive. So after a few weeks,  I went back to the doctor and asked to be checked again for STIs.

A week later, I got notified I had a nonurgent appointment with the doctor. I went to his office, but this time I got the biggest shock of my life: The doctor said I tested positive for HSV2, or genital herpes. Based on my research, I have no physical symptoms of herpes, and I never have cold sores either, so I am little perplexed as to why he tested me in the first place. Given blood tests for herpes are not recommended for people with no physical symptoms and can be inconclusive (i.e., false positive), do I now have to tell every single partner I might meet in the future? I already struggle to speak to women, and I am the shy type when it comes to relationships. The thought of carrying this burden of disclosure is making me extremely anxious and sick.

I also don’t think the doctor was behaving ethically here either, given no doctor has ever tested me for herpes via blood tests before because I never have had any physical symptoms. In the first test, he didn’t include herpes in the blood test, and in the second, I assumed he would do the same, but he didn’t. I was in a rush to get to work that day and I didn’t do a proper check before my blood was taken out, so partly it’s my fault as well, but I trusted him because he was a doctor. Do you think this is right? Should I lodge a complaint against this doctor? He is someone I have recently started visiting since I moved to this city.

—Standardized Test

Dear Standardized Test,

False positives in HSV2 tests are so common—nearly 1 in 2, estimates the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force—that you cannot for sure say that you have herpes right now.* The results are inconclusive. I think the best thing to do would be to monitor for potential symptoms and perhaps get another test (or five) to give you a better picture of whether you’re a carrier. If in fact you do have an active virus, yes, you’re obligated to tell your potential partners, but as you suggest, a source no less authoritative than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concedes that “diagnosing genital herpes in someone without symptoms has not shown any change in their sexual behavior (e.g., wearing a condom or not having sex) nor has it stopped the virus from spreading,” which is why the agency specifically does not recommend testing asymptomatic people for HSV2.

Regarding how to handle the doctor, that’s also inconclusive. It is indeed somewhat unusual to test for herpes without symptoms, but that test came about after you requested a second battery of tests than the first standard round of STD checks. It’s too tough for me to determine negligence or wrongdoing here because I do not know how the conversation went. You might have a good argument that you did not give properly informed consent to the herpes test, but some things to consider are whether you gave informed consent to each and every test that was taken (I’m assuming you did not), and the fact that these informed consent disputes regarding testing are almost always about HIV. I agree, it’s annoying that your doctor even put in your head that you might have herpes given the unreliability of the tests, but if he understood that you wanted to be tested for everything, perhaps his version of everything does not match yours, and a lack of specific communication is the cause of the disparity. Unless you specifically said you did not want to be treated for HSV2, I don’t think you have a case here. And what would you even do with the case, anyway? The effect of your report could be to get someone in trouble for doing what you asked a little too thoroughly for your taste, which you could have stopped anyway but for your haste the day you were tested.

As much as you may hate to hear it, I think you should talk to him about this and the faultiness of herpes tests. It’s easier to run and tell a disinterested party about perceived misdeeds, but what you’ve presented does not indicate decisive misconduct on his part, and if the test came back negative, I highly doubt you’d have the impulse to report him anyway.

Dear How to Do It,

When my husband and I started dating 10-plus years ago, I was attracted to his bouncer-like physique—broad shoulders, strong arms—and his wider waist was not an issue. Over the years, he’s put on 50-plus pounds and, now that he’s approaching his 50s, is beginning to have health issues that are significantly attributable to his eating and exercise habits.

Frankly, I’m no supermodel and, being in my late 40s, struggle balancing my glacial metabolism against my sweet tooth and emotional eating habits. Since I have a family health history that can be greatly exacerbated by weight, I try to stay on track balancing discipline and indulgences.

About four years ago, we were planning an international vacation and I expressed my concerns for his health and about our trip. His size was about to require him to purchase a second seat and impinge on our planned activities that had weight limits. We both worked hard for this trip, and I didn’t want him to spend our time being held back and feeling bad. He agreed and took some temporary steps, but quickly slid back into old habits. Well, the trip rolled around and, while we were able to upgrade his seat to give him enough room, there were multiple activities we couldn’t participate in because of weight limitations. He was apologetic and depressed, and I tried my best to stay positive and supportive as we found other things to do. Since then, we’ve had multiple conversations about being healthier as we age so we can be active when we finally retire. He repeatedly tells me that he doesn’t want to be a burden and makes self-depreciating comments about his body daily. He can maintain balanced habits for a few weeks and then slides back into old habits—often bringing me into it with meals out, insisting on appetizers and dessert, etc. I take responsibility for what goes into my body. When I point out that I’ve been overdoing, he feels like I’m judging him.

The past six months have become a spiral. The overhang of his abdomen has become an impediment in our lovemaking. We’ve tried multiple approaches and positions, but he’s unable to achieve satisfaction. His doctor prescribed ED medication, which has been unhelpful. While he is able to get an erection, we’re not able to get into a workable position without him losing it. He is frustrated and depressed about it, but seeks every solution other than reducing his weight.

I’ve always told him that I don’t care about his size. I care about his health. I feel like I’ve tried every way I can to be supportive and encouraging. I want him to be happy with who he is—inside and out, as that’s what is attractive to me. But I feel like we’re stuck at an impasse and it’s becoming harder and harder to remain patient as he simultaneously complains of discomfort from his health issues while overindulging. Is there anything I can do?

—Worried and Frustrated

Dear W&F,

As far as his behavior is concerned, you should make like the Beatles at their least creatively engaged and let it be. This is your husband’s battle to fight—you can’t will him to lose weight any more than you can decide what goes into his body by chewing up his food for him and force-feeding him. It sounds like you’ve tried to voice your concerns about his health many times and in many different ways, but if you haven’t found a neutral time to fully lay this out for your husband the way you have for me here, soberly and with compassion, that may be worth a try. But if that’s happened already, the best you can do is to focus on your own eating and fitness habits and hope that your example will prompt him to follow suit.

I feel for you both—food issues are particularly difficult as they can’t be conquered with simple abstinence. Every dinner table is a slippery slope. Do the best you can in a tight spot and continue to be supportive, affectionate, and nonjudgmental. Don’t avoid the topic of his health, but don’t harp on it either. As for sex, depending on your tastes, oral could provide a satisfying outlet that intercourse cannot at the moment. Try that, and good luck.

—Rich

More How to Do It

The other day my male roommate left a pair of his underwear on the bathroom floor. I’m also a guy. I have no idea why I did it, but I picked them up and smelled them. Then I masturbated to the smell. Then I felt horrified with myself and wondered what the hell I was thinking. How bad of a violation was this? I feel like such a creep—but also keep getting turned on by the thought of it.

Correction, April 27, 2020: This article originally misidentified the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force as the U.S. Preventative Service Task Force.